Squeak Carnwath is an archivist of the overheard, the snippet, and the little-known fact, and her works combine images and text. A studio artist, she defines painting as a rectilinear plane, a body and skin that is open and vulnerable to every variety of event, every sort of thinking and experience, as long as she can render it in her chosen medium. This belief in paint is key to her work.
Conceived by the artist as “our space,” the picture plane is able to receive and record all kinds of information. By turning materials like a poster for a lost dog in her Oakland neighborhood or something she heard on the radio into paint, Carnwath defines the painting’s surface as a wall on which she engages with collective and private memory, as well as depicts images from her expanding lexicon of motifs: sinking ships, tree trunks, LP records, and Etruscan heads derived from Fayum funeral portraits.
In many of these motifs, one may sense Carnwath’s awareness of time’s passage as an irreversible process and history as an infinitely repeatable one, which is one source of the anger, grief, and despair expressed in her art. Perhaps because the process of turning everything into paint allows her to ruminate on it, I never feel that she is either hectoring viewers or suggesting that she alone can experience this particular pain.
In her exhibition Pattern Language at Jane Lombard Gallery (April 29 – June 4, 2022), Carnwath’s openness to the world, from immediate circumstance to national history and world events, is leavened by her dark sense of humor. In “Don’t Mess” (2022), she reorients an outline of Florida and writes inside it: “Sideways/ Florida/ looks like a gun.” Elsewhere in the painting she asks: “You wanna have someone control your body?” and “Do we still recognize ourselves?” and beneath it, “this place?”
The latter two questions and their proximity to each other expand the painting beyond topical concerns, and ask a future viewer whether they “still recognize” themselves and “this place.” We know that the world is going to change but we don’t know what it is going to change into. The fact that there is no guarantee of what humankind’s legacy will be is reason enough to be in a constant state of anxiety, given the track record of what preceded us. It is this state of perturbation, which is continuously being impacted by the news, that Carnwath is tapped into. While rooted in current issues — such as women’s rights and, more specifically, abortion — the artist’s question (“You wanna have someone control your body?”) is sufficiently open-ended and not directed at a target audience, so I do not imagine that it will lose its relevance anytime soon.
In the square painting “Home” (2020), big letters rendered in different colors across the surface spell out:
In counterpoint to the question (which viewers are likely to associate with long childhood trips), we can see what the artist has previously painted, some of it now covered over. In the upper left, between the “A” and “R,” is a crown and beneath it an eye. Drips of salmon-colored paint partially cover the eye. Our attention shifts between the large letters of the dominant question and the motifs and questions we are apt to ask ourselves: What does “Home” mean? How has that word come to be defined in today’s society? How will it be defined in the future?
Looking at “Home” and the other works in the exhibition, Carnwath seems to locate her content on a continuum that includes the past even as it looks to the future. Her engagement with everyday life, history, and social issues is expansive, rather than reductive, and out of this maelstrom she makes unsettling connections. In “Don’t Mess,” she has written in pencil-like paint this observation:
The other day on T.V./the Afghan ambassador, a woman, was talking about how bad it was that the U.S. had abandoned the Afghanistan people, especially the women, and now they weren’t safe or protected. Obviously she was unaware that America can’t protect its own women (or children) and that we are still 2nd-class citizens.
Above it is the outline of a coat hanger, which women (particularly those with low incomes) have used to induce miscarriages before abortion was legalized, resulting in many deaths.
As someone who has been to many of Carnwath’s exhibitions, on both the East and West coasts (and contributed an essay to the monograph published on the occasion of her 2009 survey exhibition, Squeak Carnwath: Painting Is No Ordinary Object at the Oakland Museum, organized by Karen Tsujimoto) I have come to expect (perhaps unfairly) that she will always do something fresh and unexpected, such as add a new motif to her lexicon.
The surprise in this exhibition is “Eye Rmbrnt” (2021), an oil and alkyd painting that also includes gold leaf. On a white ground in the center, surrounded by a trompe l’oeil, gold leaf frame, is a blue eye, slightly off-center. Beneath the eye, Carnwath has “written” words such as “see,” “perceiving,” “escort,” “view,” “imagine,” and “think over.” Meanwhile, on the ground — which is the color of poached salmon — she has “drawn” simple eyes, and even simpler eyes painted in gray. Over this, we see drips of orange and blue.
The point is evident, even if the artist chooses not to spell it out. In an age when everything — from the moon landing to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — is called into doubt, Carnwath’s concern with seeing carries a deep urgency. Can we see who we are, and what we have become? Can we even begin to talk about it?
Squeak Carnwath: Pattern Language continues at Jane Lombard Gallery (58 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.